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Wed April 23, 2014
Better (?) Living Through Chemistry In 'Afterparty'
Originally published on Wed April 23, 2014 6:44 am
The question you have to ask yourself is, how juicy do you like your science fiction?
And I mean that in terms of a spectrum. To me, classic space operas are saltines — dusty and dry and fit only as a calmative after a long binge of weirder, more foreign flavors. William Gibson? He's ... moist. Rudy Rucker is a juicy peach. Paul Di Filippo is that same peach, a week gone and with a tooth stuck in it.
So ask yourself: How sticky do I want my chin and fingers when I'm done? Because Daryl Gregory's new book, Afterparty, has a place on that scale of juiciness — of genes and brains and the squishy collisions of people from vastly different walks of life — that drips and squelches somewhere in the Di Filippo range. It stakes its territory early as a second-generation biopunk (or, perhaps, pharmapunk) tale and holds that ripe ground throughout.
Afterparty is near-future sci-fi that presumes a world after the smart drug revolution — a time when anyone with a chemjet printer and some base materials can download recipes from the Internet and print his own drugs. Wanna be smart? There's a drug for that. Happy? There's a drug for that, too. Wanna be a coldblooded torturer or a savant-level pattern-recognizer? Here, kid, just swallow this.
None of this has made the world a wiser or better place. Gregory follows Gibson's First Law of Cyberpunk here: The street makes its own uses for technology. And then he adds his own codicil: Most of the time, the best tech goes no further. The drugs that flavor Afterparty's pages get used primarily by party boys (and girls), street-level drug dealers and Big Pharma (which operates in just as dirty a space as any cartel).
It isn't a perfectly realized universe. I would've liked a few grace notes of the wider effects of this "revolution" — brief mentions of how ready access to smart drugs has altered the lives of the population beyond the scientists, junkies, smugglers, dealers, bums and spooks who populate the book. But that's a minor quibble because all those characters who do traipse through Afterparty (including geriatric weed barons, a chemically schizophrenic assassin who ranches micro-bison in his apartment, and a sweet, soulful ex-addict who believes that his soul lives in a small aquarium decoration that he wears around his neck) are beautifully realized, many of their unique and shattering collisions with this future detailed in odd demi-chapters that Gregory tags as parables.
Yeah, parables. Because Afterparty's hook is that, once upon a time, a tiny startup pharmaceutical lab called Little Sprout, working on a drug to cure schizophrenia, accidentally invented one whose side effects included putting one in close and personal communication with God.
Afterparty has two competing narratives, working a kind of back-and-forth seesaw on the plot. The first is the mystery of what happened at the Little Sprout buyout party — which began with a bunch of happy employees celebrating their becoming sudden millionaires and ended with one dead body and all the survivors forcibly dosed with their own drug, at levels causing blackouts, lawsuits, spontaneous religious conversion and confinement to various Canadian mental institutions. The second tack follows Lyda Rose, one of the Little Sprout founders.
She travels everywhere with an overdose-induced angel on her shoulder as she tries to figure out who among the party survivors has begun secretly manufacturing the drug again and putting it out on the street. See, it's dangerous, this drug. It's highly addictive. It makes you see God. And, more important to almost everyone involved, it also makes you lose your taste for other, lesser drugs. Like the weed being sold by an army of elderly, vicious Afghan women or the happy pills being pushed by various pharmaceutical companies.
What follows that winning setup is essentially one long chase sequence, woven through with a bittersweet junkie love story and broken up here and there with some backstory and the aforementioned parables. Gregory handles it well, putting the pedal down when necessary, but also knowing when to feather it back a little to let us linger on some small detail of his future world — First Nations cigarette smugglers here, the interior decorating styles of the fabulously wealthy there.
And it is all of this — all the drugs and weirdness and cat ladies and religious hallucinations — that slaps Afterparty down wetly in its place on the juiciness spectrum. The future is going to be messy: Far from the clean vacuum of space or the unending grit of dystopianism, it's going to be a jumble, shaped by the collisions of industry and criminality, of faith and science, of brains and the things we do to them in the name of research, recreation and memory.